Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cross-Cultural Collision Caused by One Word

A major cross-cultural collision occurred at the end of a recent multi-stakeholder dialogue I was facilitating.

The offending word: Report.

In the final feel-good stretches of a dynamic multi-sectoral, heretofore generative dialogue, progress screamed to a halt when this six letter word was uttered. The precipitating question, expected to be purely rhetorical – Can we issue a “report” from this meeting?

The room was immediately divided between loud answers of absolutely YES, and absolutely NO. Faces contorted, side conversations bubbled up around the room (ok, maybe I am being a little melodramatic, but not too much). Confounded, I took a quick poll. We found that the private sector representatives weighed in heavily on the NO side. But what about transparency, the NGOs said?! Transparency is fine, came the business answer, the problem is we didn’t DO anything to report on. (Chilly silence, after two long 10-hour days.) But, we spoke for 2 days on lifecycle improvements, made some agreements and got some great ideas, claimed the NGOs. But we set no targets, have no deliverables or budget figures, countered the business partners, let’s work together now and issue the Report in a year or two. A year or two!! The NGOs were mystified…

Ahhh, the penny dropped. Report, I thought, that’s the problem. In a company, a Report (with a capital “R”) means End of Year Report, Annual Report, Shareholders Report. They involve hard figures, money, progress, dates and demonstration of concrete targets met. For us, NGOs, however, we write activity or process reports (with a small “r”) all the time, for communication purposes among our wide and varied constituencies, to keep people abreast of issues and activities often while they are happening, as a means to engage our staff and partners in ongoing consultation. Very different notions of that word “report”.

OK, let’s try this again. I asked the group, “Can we send out a meeting summary after our workshop? “ (No R word this time). Unanimously approved, collision tidied up, traffic flow back to normal.

(Note for my Facilitator record: Sometimes I expect and prepare for cross-cultural differences when I am working with groups that include two or more national (or sub-national) cultures; I might not expect the differences that can occur between institutional cultures. These can be as strongly adhered to, and incredibly different, as working with international groups, and present surprises for a facilitator such as the one described above.)

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